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St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and Venerable Paul Libermann

September 26, 2018

Fr. Louis Liagre C.S.Sp (1859 – 1936) was a Holy Ghost father and a one-time spiritual director of the Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre during the latter’s seminary days in Rome.  The following is a condensed form of a conference Fr. Liagre gave in the Seminary of Mortain early 1930’s.  Archbishop Lefebvre was the rector of the same seminary later on (1945 – 1947). Fr. Liagre is also the author of well-known book: A retreat with St. Thérèse.

Source : Orignal French -“Sainte Thérèse de Enfant Jesus et le Venerable Libermann.  Annales de S. Thérèse de Lisieux, Etudes et documents Thérésiens. Oct (1936) pp. 121-128, Jan (1937) pp. 22-32. | English translation - ‘St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the venerable Paul Libermann’. Sicut Parvuli, July 1943, pp. 117-129, August 1943, pp. 163-179.

Identity of Doctrine

It is generally said that the doctrine of Paul Libermann is above all a doctrine of renunciation; renunciation therefore is its characteristic note.  On the other hand, the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is clearly marked by the priority which it gives to love; in this case filial love for God our Father is the characteristic feature. At first sight it would seem that the two doctrines are opposed to each other, violently opposed we might even say. On the one hand, renunciation before all else; on the other hand, love above everything.  What then are the actual facts?

The word “renunciation” with its ring of death is constantly to be found under the pen of Fr. Libermann; today we should call it the leitmotiv of all his writings. But let us examine closely the meaning of renunciation as interpreted by Fr. Libermann.  Actually, renunciation consists of love, in fact it is love; it is the reverse side of love; it is simply the expression of the sincere desire to love God with our whole heart—ex toto corde.   For the sincere desire to love God and God alone is obviously the sincere desire to cease loving oneself, and here precisely we have the obverse and reverse of the same spiritual activity: love.

Such is Fr. Libermann’s understanding or renunciation.  If we read his letters we shall find that what he strives above all and from the very outset to excite in those under his direction is the desire to love God to the point of perfection, for without this he feels nothing can be done. “I repeat with emphasis, if Paul Libermann inculcates strongly Our Lord's precept: ‘Si quis vult post me venire abneget semetipsum,’ it is simply because he has first learned the supreme, the wholly unique lesson of the Divine Master ‘Diliges Dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo.’ The second injunction explains the first.”

Let us begin by loving (and if we sincerely desire to love, we do already love); let us begin by loving and then practise renunciation. Let the desire to love first raise us up, for this is the divine lever, the only lever: then we shall renounce ourselves because it will be impossible to do otherwise. The desire for self renunciation is the logical consequence, or better still the psychological, we ought to say the divine consequence (but we shall see this later) of the sincere desire to love God.

Now let us turn to the little Carmelite of Lisieux. Her “originality” is really nothing else but a simple return to the Gospel teaching which can be summed up in one sentence: Love your Heavenly Father. Love God as little children, destitute little children, nevertheless most loving and eager to please their Father.  To please Almighty God: this is the whole secret of St. Thérèse.

And is not St. Thérèse's desire, the desire to give pleasure to her Heavenly Father, identical with the desire for perfection which Fr. Libermann seeks to arouse at the very outset in the spiritual life? In both cases there is identically the same teaching: the teaching of the Gospel, the teaching of love.

Having thus compared these two doctrines by their essential characteristics we will now make a brief survey of another feature that bears clear resemblance: simplicity.

Fr. Libermann has the keen, almost instinctive sense that multiplicity, or complexity, is prejudicial and obstructive to the spiritual life. Simplicity is his constant aim and his advice on this subject is surprising, almost scandalising in its boldness. Listen, for example, to the line of conduct which he traces for a seminarian. “I would advise from now on to abandon multiplicity of practices and seek one thing alone (the unum necessarium surely of our Blessed Lord to Martha, that fussy, complex soul)—to seek solely the perfecting of the interior foundation of your spiritual life, and to abandon yourself wholly and entirely to God in utter sincerity... Aim at one point alone in everything-to keep your soul in simple repose before God. No more of these fierce, painful struggles, these agitations and self-torments. When you find yourself lacking in virtue, do not be disturbed.”

It seems almost redundant to show that this was the method of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. We all remember her life, and could anything be simpler? The more I meditate upon it the more it appears to me as the fulfilment of St. Augustine's words: “Ama et fac quod vis.” Thérèse wished to love God and love Him with all her heart. She followed the urge of this simple desire and practised all the virtues as though by nature.

Her sister, Mother Agnes of Jesus, tells us: “Thérèse never had any method of prayer; she went to God as a child to its Father with utter simplicity and addressed Him like a child in the language of love.”

Another point of interest. Fr. Libermann has no great liking for books; we remember his famous letter on St. John of the Cross. “All that St. John of the Cross says is admirable, but I think that what our Divine Master says is more admirable. Indeed, I think that it is He alone who can enlighten us . . . At the beginning especially very little reading should be done. . . One must not yield to the desire for reading. . . In your case never seek instruction from books. . . It will not be wrong for you to read, nevertheless read little!” St. Thérèse was of the same mind on the subject of spiritual books. In her own way she tells us this “sometimes when I read certain books in which perfection is put before us with the goal obstructed by a thousand obstacles, my poor little head is quickly fatigued. I close the learned treatise, which tires my brain and dries up my heart, and I turn to the Sacred Scriptures. Then all becomes clear ... and perfection appears easy." (Autobiography, pp 372-3).  And again: “As for myself, I find nothing in books… The Gospel suffices me." (Novissima Verba, p. 4)

Common Foundation of Doctrine

The foundation of this most simple spirituality is faith in the reality of grace—a lively faith in the mystery of grace working on our souls. That is to say, faith in God’s infinite love for us, in His immense desire to give Himself, to communicate Himself to us. And this is what St. Thérèse and Fr. Libermann believed with their whole soul. They had a profound and lively faith in the truth that God places Himself in us.

Hence the part which Fr. Libermann would have us play in the work of our sanctification is obvious. He tells us it is far more important to let God act in us than take action ourselves, to permit the Holy Spirit to work in us than do anything ourselves, to allow ourselves to be led than set forth ourselves. “Qui Spiritu Dei aguntur," says St. Paul. We should note “aguntur," the verb is in the passive. Passivity or activity: which is the primordial element in our co-operation with the divine action, with the grace of God within our souls? In the case of St. Thérèse and Fr. Libermann we could say without hesitation that passivity is by far the more important element, that it is the main effort required of us in the work of our sanctification, which is exclusively and supremely the work of God in our souls. And the Holy Ghost works in us by arousing the ‘desire of God’. He excites them with the sole intention of satisfying them, of gratifying them to a point beyond anything that we can wish for or understand. (Ep. iii, 20)

With both Thérèse and Fr. Libermann the word desire occurs incessantly, and this is highly significant.  St. Thérèse’s own desires reach a standard unsurpassed; they exceed all bounds, all reasonable degree; they are immense, infinite.  As for Fr. Libermann, his joy is great indeed when he perceives any awakening of the desire for perfection. One can imagine such a reaction in Fr. Libermann when he says to one of his penitents: “My hopes rose high because I saw that the Holy Spirit was beginning to stir in your soul.” On the other hand, nothing is more depressing and discouraging for a priest than to find a total lack of response when he vainly tries to arouse some spiritual desire or impulse.  This indifference, this torpor is an obstacle to the action of the Spirit of Love, and it is a state most saddening to behold. 

To return to Thérèse, the child of immense desires.  “I concluded that God would not inspire a wish which could not be realized, and that in spite of my littleness I might aim at being a saint. ‘It is impossible’ I said, ‘for me to become a great, so I must bear with myself and my many imperfections, but I will seek out a means of reaching heaven by a little way—very short, very straight and entirely new.  We live in an age of inventions: there are now lifts which save us the trouble of climbing stairs. I will try to find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too small to climb the steep stairway of perfection. (How many people say this and remain in discouragement at the foot of the stairway!) I sought to find in Holy Scripture some suggestion of what this desired lift might be, and I came across those words, uttered by the Eternal Wisdom itself: Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me... Never have I been consoled by words more tender and more sweet.  O Jesus! Thy arms, then, are the lift which must raise me even unto heaven.”

Desire to love, humility, confidence: this covers everything in the eyes of Thérèse, and equally so in the view of Paul Libermann. 

Meanwhile we must bear with ourselves, as St. Thérèse says; and this is in excellent remedy, maybe the only really efficacious remedy to cure our pride and make us truly humble.  Fr. Libermann has similar advice to give on this point.  “Fix your gaze on God alone; the more you turn to Him the more your life will be purified of all imperfection and of the poverty and wretchedness which fill it.” But here again there is a danger that the soul will try to act by itself; therefore, he adds with emphasis: “Seek after Jesus unceasingly, but do not seek after Him through your own effort.  Ask Him to draw you, and then give yourself up to Him.”

Interior passivity is the essential condition of apostolic activity.  Once more, let us hear Fr. Libermann’s own vindication of his doctrine; his words contain a depth of learned theology.

“When God created the universe, He worked upon nothingness. Similarly, if He wills to work in us and effect such things as are infinitely above all-natural beauty (which comes from His hand), He does not need us to help by our own feverish activity.”

“Leave Him to do everything.  He likes to work on nothingness.” (Nothingness is just what we do not want to be!)

In conclusion, obviously there is a difference of tone and accent one might notice in Fr. Libermann and St. Thérèse.  We can say without hesitation that there is the same difference between the Spiritual Letters of Fr. Libermann and the Autobiography of St. Thérèse as between the Epistles of St. Paul and the Gospel.  It is the same thing, expressed in a different way.  I would say that Thérèse has lent the charm of her smile to the somewhat rugged countenance of Fr. Libermann’s teaching.  With a ray of sunshine, she has lit up the drear, sombre style of the Jewish convert; she has strewn rose-petals on the sometimes-thorny language of the advocate of total renunciation.

Finally, we might characterise their respective styles by saying that Thérèse is Fr. Libermann in verse, and Fr. Libermann is Thérèse in prose.

In conclusion, we could repeat that St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Venerable Paul Libermann in both their life and their doctrine are the absolute living commentary on that short but most profound saying of St. Augustine: “Love, and then do what you wish.”.

(Condensed by Fr. Therasian Babu SSPX)